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Revisiting London Below: Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” on DVD

Neverwhere DVD box art

It’s been at least 10 years since I last saw Neverwhere, the six-part BBC series by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry that subsequently became a Gaiman novel and marked one of my earliest introductions to his work. Sometimes it’s really rough revisiting early works from writers you adore because – depending on the writer and the relative earliness of said work – the odds may be sizeable that it just won’t hold up. Which is why it delights me to say, after binging the Neverwhere 15th Anniversary Edition DVD the other night, that not only does the show hold up, but it cemented my opinion that, for works from exceptional storytellers like Gaiman, the best possible medium for any filmed adaptation is television.

Two things to clarify up front after that last statement: One, as noted above, the Neverwhere novel followed the TV series and served to expand and enrich the story of Richard, a perfectly ordinary Scottish bloke living in London who, unlike so many can’t-be-arsed city dwellers, stops to look after an injured girl in the street and ends up on an adventure in a subterranean world of fiefdoms, noblemen, angels and nightmares. Having only half-hours in which to work, and feeling the limitations of both budget and format, the book later allowed Gaiman to flesh out the terrific characters and realms that he and Henry concocted, limited only by the breadth of his imagination. (Which is pretty damn broad, don’tcha know).

Clive Russell as Mr. Vandemar (l) and Gary Bakewell as Richard

Clive Russell as Mr. Vandemar (l) and Gary Bakewell as Richard

Of course, the limitations that were enforced upon the show are a tiny caveat to my previous point about Neverwhere holding up as well as it does. Any drawbacks it has were the drawbacks to begin with; it can’t be denied that BBC-enforced edicts such as shooting the series on video instead of film affects the end result in significant ways. (Mind you, having grown up on a variety of British television that was shot on video as well, there is a certain vintage appeal there. Aww, the salad days.) That said, it is quite remarkable what Neverwhere accomplishes given the meager budget and the like; in Gaiman’s solo interview on the DVD extras (shot several years back), he points out a scene in Episode 4 which features a stately candlelit dinner that was shot in a train platform with actual London tube trains whizzing by, and it is indeed a stunningly filmed sequence. Even on video.

The caliber of talent across the board in Neverwhere also contributes immensely to its timelessness; where some of the hairstyles and fashion choices (yes, even the ostensibly fantastical London Below ones) are minutely dated, the performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Paterson Joseph’s pervasively charming huckster Marquis de Carabas and Peter Capaldi’s unsettlingly genteel turn as the Angel Islington. Dewi Humphreys’ direction is spot-on, particularly when the show crashes through the mold of stodgy video with atmospheric, jagged jump cuts and disorienting freeze frames. Oh, and the fab score by Brian Eno. Yeah, back up and read that again… BRIAN FUCKING ENO. Kinda inventing a new style of score, sort of… prog-goth? Ace. I still have yet to listen to the commentaries for each episode, but I can confirm that the brief intro Q&A with Gaiman, Henry, and producer Clive Brill is excellent. (Obvious highlight: Henry’s multiple – seriously, he does it about half a dozen times – impressions of the shriek he let out upon meeting Gaiman and artist/collaborator Dave McKean for the first time. Oh, Lenny. Less than three you.)

Peter Capaldi as the Angel Islington, Laura Fraser as Door

Peter Capaldi as the Angel Islington, Laura Fraser as Door

At the end of the day it is the rich storytelling on hand in Neverwhere that makes it most worth revisiting. Yes, the nerd collective is apt to reply, that’s Neil… it’s what he does. Well, yes, but I don’t think it can be stressed enough how he manages to pull of a supremely multi-faceted universe in three hours’ time, using as many existing London locations as possible to double for a fairy-tale-cum-dystopian world. The phrase “world-building” gets used in discussions about TV shows a lot, and many writers are great at it, but Neil Gaiman is virtually unmatched. The strange denizens of London Below are such heartfelt and relevant creations because they’re rooted in a very real observation, namely Gaiman and Henry’s conceit that the transients of the streets of London are dwellers of this underground world, virtually invisible to ordinary folk who breeze by them like they don’t exist. Other times, the daftest of plot points works like gangbusters; when you’ve got a scene with Laura Fraser’s Door demanding that Gary Bakewell’s Richard apologize to a rat (who ends up being an extremely important rat later, but you certainly can’t know that at the time), it’s clearly meant to be amusing but it’s also played extremely straight, and you believe completely within about two seconds that she’s got a damn good reason and he’d better do it and not dawdle… that’s a writer who knows how to cement an audiences’ faith in the world they’ve created.

Watching Neverwhere again has absolutely renewed my interest in the fact that Gaiman’s magnum opus American Gods is in development at HBO; though I do still have reservations about how they’re going to make that work, he is involved and the nature of that particular story could actually lend itself pretty well to an ongoing saga. Whether working in the UK television model where shows are commissioned one series at a time, so you need to have a satisfying conclusion if not concrete closure; or in the U.S. model where a second season could conceivably get greenlit the morning after the pilot airs, it is indispensible to have a vision in place that is sturdy and manifold enough to support a sprawling narrative and a worthwhile march toward its endgame. (Though it won’t potentially go on and on like most series, I’m also I’m pretty thrilled that the long-gestating Good Omens, based on the novel Gaiman wrote with Terry Pratchett, which is probably in my top five favorite books of all time, will also end up on the telly. With Terry Jones writing!)

In the intro, Lenny Henry speaks fondly of reading Gaiman’s Sandman comic and never wanting it to end. Good serialized stories, even with a finite conclusion in sight, should always make you feel that way; 15 years later, Neverwhere totally does.

The BBC’s Neverwhere 15th Anniversary Edition DVD is out now.

Follow Nicole Campos on Twitter: @camposova

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9 comments

  • I read the book first and eventually found the series on a now -defunct britcom torrent tracker. The low production values didn’t surprise me at all. I’d seen enough of the final 80s Doctor Who episodes and of course Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to make Neverwhere’s limitations seem somehow appropriate for the time and genre.

  • First off, I had no idea the mini-series came first. I know, bad fan! Lazy Fan! I’ll own those because nonetheless, still a fan. I did read the book before I saw the series and it was one of the first things I re-watched when I started streaming Netflix. And yeah, it’s dated and the production value is low but I still love it. I’ll need to pick this up so I can watch/listen to the commentaries and interviews.

    American Gods was my intro to Gaiman and I do kind of shudder about it being brought to the screen but it is HBO..home to Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and Pillars of the Earth. All wonderful. It’s not Starz, home to Torchwood: Miracle Day which makes me sad just to think about. So, for American Gods…I live in hope. I did re-read this recently and it’s still wonderful. So, I think I will do the sam with Neverwhere.

  • I highly recommend watching all of Neil’s commentary. While I found the series on it’s own enjoyable, it was Neil’s commentary that really made it shine for me, especially those moments when he gets excited about rediscovering little bits and can’t help but just sit back and watch.

  • I, like many other Americans I imagine, read the novel first and only years later realized there was not only a series but that it had come first. I had loved the book – I think it was the first Gaiman novel I ever picked up after reading Sandman – but I didn’t love the series the first time through. Lucky for me I’d already bought it and have now watched it many times over. I love it more every time. Paterson Joseph and Peter Capaldi are really fantastic. Tamsin Greig (Black Books anyone?) is marvelous as Lamia the velvet. Recommended.

  • I never saw this because when I went to a Neil Gaiman signing years ago, he told us that he hoped his “American audience” would never see the BBC “Neverwhere” because he was embarrassed by the UK production value. Thanks for the article. You’re making me re-think my avoidance.